The University of Utah wants to further beautify its Red Butte Gardens/Arboretum by constructing a $1.78 million visitors center.

The 8,300-square-foot center, which would hand out visitor information and offer meeting rooms, would be built with private donations.It's a worthwhile project, agreed the U. Institutional Council Monday. But the council also decided that the state should pick up the tab for the center's operation and maintenance expenses, estimated at $30,000 to $40,000 annually .

The council supported the sentiments of U. Vice President Walter Gnemi, who said that the state should pay for operating expenses without taking it out of funds for other U. projects. The state assigned the state arboretum to the U. and therefore should be willing to partially foot the bill, Gnemi said.

Council Chairman James S. Jardine also mentioned that the visitors center and gardens would be heavily used by schoolchildren. That's another reason for state support, Jardine said.

U. President Chase N. Peterson said the Legislature used to automatically fund operation and maintenance expenses for buildings constructed with donated funds, but beginning with 1987's tight budget "we all realized that was a luxury we couldn't afford."

In the following years, the State Board of Regents and legislators, before they have approved donated construction projects, have questioned whether the operation and maintenance costs will also be covered by donations. They have repeatedly pointed out that without endowments to cover operation and maintenance, the costs of these new buildings must be paid for by the state, thus further straining the state's ability to meet the increasing demands of higher education.

The visitors center must be approved by both the regents and legislators. But even if approval is given, the project will be aborted if the state doesn't also agree to pay the upkeep expenses.